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Jazz Chord Secrets Every Jazz Beginner Should Learn

You know how this feels: You are playing a song and then the chords look like completely insane (Db7(b9,b13,no5)

and your brain is thinking (picture of hand knot on the fretboard), and that is just one chord, because they keep on coming all the time. But we can’t all be like BB King and just hire somebody to play chords while we say “I am horrible With Chords” And the main reason for that is that you will have a lot of fun playing chords and you can make great music with them, you just need to know how!

In this video, I am going over the 3 I’s as a way of dealing with chords and making it easier to deal with chord progressions,

 

hearing, understanding, and turning them into music. It should not be complicated to play music, so first you want to make the whole thing a bit simpler.

#1 Ignore

When you look at a chord like C7(#11,b9) then that is a lot of information, and you don’t want to spend too much energy on it while playing. Figuring out what those notes are, or trying to remember a grip that works like this C7(#11,b9) but is far away from the Gm7 I was playing or doesn’t really fit with where the music is or where it is going is not going to be useful. But you can actually also just ignore all of that and just play a C7, especially if you are a beginner, that is probably the best way to go, but you do need to play the right type of simple C7, as I will show you, and later in the video I’ll show you how to be much more strategic and flexible with the chords, and not a slave to some numbers and letters, because numbers and letters are not music.

This is about not getting stuck with thinking about each chord so to begin with then a m7 chord will work if it is just a m7 chord and a dominant works if you play it without extensions as well.

Start by just playing the simple harmony.

As Joe Pass says:

“you must think of the chords in their simplest form….”

In the beginning, if you just ignore all the extensions and alterations you can easily play the chords as shell voicings, and as you probably know, a shell voicing is a voicing consisting of root, 3rd and 7th,

so it doesn’t clash with any b9s, #11 or b13s that might also be in the music. For a II V I then you could have these chords:

But you can also reduce those to something like this:

Or the other position:

And using shell voicings you can clearly spell out the harmony:

And there is still a lot of room for adding rhythm to the music:

With chords like that, you can pretty much play any progression and get it to sound tight, you can be rhythmical and you hear how the chords move, so you still get the essential flow of the harmony. It is important that you remember that, in Jazz, the chords are not isolated islands. They are a part of a progression and you want to think of them as words, not get stuck spelling the letters, which is exactly where you get stuck if you think too much about the extensions of one chord and not on how the chords flow together.

Which is the next thing to learn.

#2 Interpret

When you read the chord and start to analyze the extensions and alterations, then you are thinking about something that isn’t music, it is numbers and letters, and in the moment it is not helping you play any better. I came across this interview with Joe Diorio where he talks about asking Wes about this, and Wes’ answer is so spot on:

“What do you think when you see Dm7 G7 Cmaj7? – It is a Sound!”

But how do you turn chords into sounds and what does that have to do with reading chord symbols? For most people, the easiest way to do that is by connecting chords to songs, so learning how they sound in one song and then using that to hear the chords in the next song,and you do that not by thinking of a single chord but by learning to recognize the building blocks that make up the song.

That’s also why there are 2 billion lessons on II V I tricks, it is the most common building block for Jazz songs, but far from the only one, and whenever you learn a song, it pays off to think about the building blocks in there!

Let me show you how this helps you deal with complicated chord symbols in a more musical way. Because, if you ignore the extensions and then look at what the chord is a part of, then you can treat it as a piece of music and use the vocabulary you already have.

Let’s say that the music you are reading says D7(b9b13)

If you only look at the chord then that is all the information you have, but if you ignore the extensions and zoom out a bit and see that it is part of a minor II V I: Aø D7 Gm6

then you have a way of playing it where you are worrying about playing a specific chord, but you are working on playing a passage in the music that has melody and rhythm, not numbers and symbols,

and that context will also tell you what extensions and alterations might be a part of the sound because instead of trying to calculate what the b13 of D is and how to play that, then you are playing a D7 resolving to Gm. Adding that context to a chord is much closer to a sound and also easier to hear.

The important thing here is that you start to look at songs as having chunks that are smaller chord progressions and recognize how they are similar and when something sounds similar,

it does take time to build a vocabulary of chord progressions and get them into your ear, but it is worth it! Then you know what you can do with the chord, what notes you can add, and which melodies might work. You need that because Jazz is about improvising, also when it comes to chords.

#3 Improvise

One of the great things about playing Jazz is that soloing and playing chords is really pretty much the same thing, you are taking the chords and improvising to turn them into music, but in one case you create a melody and in the other, you are creating a background for somebody else’s melody. So the point of playing chords is mostly to improvise and to connect the chords with voice-leading, rhythm, and melody. But one of the problems here is that a chord symbol is a static thing, and not really something you can improvise with., so instead of thinking of D7(b9b13) then thinking of it as D7 resolving to Gm is going to give you a lot more options that you can make melodies with and turn progression into a piece of music, and check out how this example uses a b13 but it isn’t there all the time

So you want to learn to see a chord symbol not as a single grip or a few grips, but instead, you zoom out a bit and see it as a lot of options that you can put together as a piece of music, and depending on the context, then if it says D7(b9) you don’t have to play the b9, and you can often add a b13 that will sound great because those two notes are both a part of the sound of that chord, whether they are written in the chord symbol or not.

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The Biggest Misunderstanding About Jazz Chords And How To Quickly Fix It

The way you think about Jazz chords is most likely wrong, and that is because you have been taught to think about chords in the wrong way from probably the first guitar lesson you ever had.

When it comes to playing Jazz then you should take the advice of Joe Pass:

“You must think about the chords in the most simple possible form”   

As you will see, that way you will avoid a lot of problems. This is probably connected to what made you interested in Jazz chords  in the first place:

When I first started to learn about Jazz chords then I heard all these incredibly beautiful sustained chords with a lot of colors, and I loved how they sounded.

And that is how most of us start out thinking about chords: as separate grips and each with its own name that tells you exactly what extensions and alterations are used.

The problem with that is that it is impossible to remember all those different chords, and when you are playing Jazz then it is as important that you can get from one chord to the next, which doesn’t get easier if you have to fit together thousands of different chords

Instead,  you should work on a way to think of groups of chords, Which will make it easier to play music because:

#1 It’s Visual And Easy To Remember

#2 You can improvise and Connect Chords

#3 Makes it Simple To Add Chromatic Chords

And as you will see later in the video, it is also a direct and incredibly effective shortcut to playing Chord Solos, something that is quantum physics if you have to think about each chord separately! In fact, I will clear up 3 misunderstandings about Jazz chords along the way because there is a lot of bad information out there.

Making Jazz Chords Simple!

But we are not going to start with the chord solos and chromatic passing chords. Let’s start with this C7(13). It is a fairly common voicing, but what can you do with it?

First, you want to boil it down to a simple more flexible form, similar to what Joe Pass said, because that is something you can improvise with. Instead of using this 4-note chord voicing then maybe look at what is the core of it: The 3rd and 7th, which in this case are on the middle strings, are what you want to focus on.

These are the important notes that get the sound of the chord across. The fact that it is a C7 is more important than the 13th, that note is just an extension and one of many options. The bass-note you can leave to the bass player, that way you don’t get in the way of him or her and you have one more finger to do something interesting with the chord.

When it comes to remembering chords then we get very used to navigating chords using the 5th and 6th strings as reference points because that is where we play the root.  Now, what you want to make a habit, is to be able to play the chord and see it on the neck as a C7 with that root, but you are not playing it.

So if you played a II V I in F major then you think or visualize the root but just play the top part

As you can hear from the II V I example then you can reduce all chords like this, and for now, then you can keep the 3rd and 7th on the middle string set, because then you have room above for melody and extensions and below for bass notes, depending on what you need to play.

Now that you are getting rid of one Jazz chord misunderstanding and have a way to think about simple chords then you might as well kill another one and then we can get into a hack for chromatic passing chords so that they are incredibly simple! (voiceover?)

Adding Melody Not Extensions

In Music, and certainly, in Jazz, context is everything! And the idea that chords are these isolated and static things and not really a part of a piece of music is completely misguided, that is in fact the 2nd misunderstanding I want to clear up. Most of the time, Jazz is all about connecting those chords and making the transition beautiful and creative.

Instead of thinking of chords like that then you want to think of a chord as something much more flexible, almost like a scale where you play the sound of the chord but you can add notes if you want to and you should also think about it as something that has movement built into it, a Chord is not just a chord it is in a context.. Peter Bernstein says it nicely here:

 

The most important part of that movement is melody, but

adding the melody is not that difficult now that you already reduced the chord to two notes.

I’ll first show how to find notes that work and then talk a bit about how to create melodies.

It is a little bit like taking the chord

and the scale that goes with it, and then seeing what notes are available on the top strings that also fit with the sound of the chord.v

In this case, with the C7 you get all of these options:

And you can see a C7 not as a C7(13) or a C7(9) but as a place where you can play a melody using these notes, and notice how I just call all of them C7

Now, my point with writing C7 doesn’t mean that you should not know what the extensions are, it is just to make it clear that when you see C7 like this then you can use a C7(13) or a C7(9). It’s a little bit like most languages have words that contain letters that we don’t pronounce anymore but we do know how to spell it and use all the letters in writing.

You can do the same thing for Gm7 and Fmaj7 and add notes over the 3rd and 7th of those. Notice that I am leaving out the Bb over Fmaj7 because that doesn’t really work in that chord, but you probably already know that.

Making Chords Into Music

Now you can start working on making melodies. This example is possibly a bit busy, but it is also a bit to show you what is possible:

You can go over a progression like this one or a song and then explore how you can improvise melodies.

For now, this is for comping behind a soloist so make sure to:

#1 Play mostly stepwise melodies

#2 Don’t play too many notes and chords

#3 Make sure to once in a while clearly lay down a long chord on a heavy beat.

Misunderstanding #3: Never Play Chords On The Downbeat

The last one is the 3rd misunderstanding, and it is something that I sometimes see in comments online: “You should never play chords on the downbeat”

Which is of course pretty insane and not what you hear on any recording of any Jazz musician, you of course want to learn to play off beats but you are supporting the music and the soloist and that means that you once in a while need to lay down the groove with clarity and give the soloist something to work with. There is really no reason to be afraid of playing a clear chord on the one or on the three so that you are really connecting to the song. Your off-beats only make sense when they are in balance with your downbeats, it is like trying to cook but only use pepper and no salt.

Let’s move on to a visual hack for chromatic passing chords and get into some chord soloing!

Chromatic Chords – Melodic And Visual

With this approach then you can see how the chords are turned into a core set of notes and then a lot of notes that you are free to improvise with, and what you play is more about hearing a melody than thinking a lot of complicated chord formulas.

But Jazz melodies have chromatic notes as well,  and you can incorporate that very easily into your comping like this:

The simple way to look at chromatic passing notes in Jazz lines is that they are there as an outside tension that is resolved by moving up or down a half-step. Like this Ab between A and G:

If you have this melody over a C7 then the first chord is clearly a C7(13), and the last one will be a C7, and you can use the last one as a way to come up with a chord for the Ab because you just play the same chord and move the entire thing down a half step:

And in the same way, you could get another passing chord moving up from C to D with a C# leading note, here you have a B7 moving up to C7:

This is both easy to figure out and easy to play, since you just think of the resolution and use that, there is no need to think about the passing chord.

And that means that you can play something like this:

It Is Already A Chord Solo!

And improvising while you are comping in fact means that you are learning to play chord solos. You are already working on making phrases and melodies with the material so you just need to start using it as a solo and not as a way of comping.

Let’s say that instead of the II V I in F then it is a Blues in C. For the first 4 bars, you only need an F7 to play a solo statement, so  with a basic F7 like this

then you reduce it to these two notes

and a practical set of notes could be:

And with that, you can play something like this, and notice how I am repeating riffs on the C7 and also using call-response to tie together the melodies:

This very practical way of approaching Chord Solos is something you will also find great examples of in the playing of Joe Pass. If you check out this video you can see my breakdown of chord solo phrases and some amazing Jazz Blues from a true master!

This Jazz Blues Solo is Perfect And Nobody Is Talking About It

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How Joe Pass Makes Jazz Chords Simple & Easy

Joe Pass: “First of all, I’ll tell you, If I have a II V, Forget the II.”

So this isn’t exactly how I think chord progressions but I sort of agree with him, and as you will see, the way he breaks down a Jazz standard really is practical and makes it a lot easier to learn the song. I am sure you recognize how difficult it is when you are looking at a song and get completely lost in all the different chords and extensions and alterations which maybe isn’t really how you should think about it anyway.

As you probably already know then Joe Pass is one of my favorite Jazz guitarists. He was a walking library of Jazz standards, he knew all the songs, and I have been told that most of the virtuoso sessions were just the producer, Noman Granz, asking Joe Pass to play a song and then they just recorded that with no rehearsal, which is pretty mind-blowing. That is also why I thought it was exciting to come across this video where he describes how he thinks about chord progressions in songs.

II V is just V

Let’s first look at this II V thing in isolation and then branch out to how this all fits together in songs and how it works with some other chords.

The basic concept is if you have a II V then you can just use the V chord. Joe Pass explains it like this:

“Why are you playing the II what is it? like”

“If you play the V, that got the II!”

“here’s a scale for the V, It’s a G7”


“here’s a scale for the II
it’s the same scale different notes”

The idea of ignoring the II chord and just seeing the whole thing as a V chord is certainly not unique to Joe Pass, I would mostly associate it with how Barry Harris teaches and it is a part of Bebop since it is also fairly easy to spot in Charlie Parker solos. here’s an example from Blues For Alice where he is playing the C# on beat 1 of the Em7 A7 bar, which means that he is not thinking Em7 there at all, just A7.

Pros and Cons of Reducing Chord Progressions

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to this approach.  The obvious advantage is that there are less chords, for example if you look at Confirmation:

where there are suddenly a lot less chords to remember.

Becomes:

Another advantage with reducing II V’s is that the strongest movement in a II V I is the resolution from V to I, and that is still there, so you keep the essence of what is going on, which means that the reduced progression will often still make sense as a chord progression.

Joe Pass demonstrates that they are the same by pointing out that the notes in the scales are the same,  one explanation that I got from a teacher a long time ago was that the II chord is really just a suspension of the V chord, so Dm7 is just a G7sus4 that got out of hand and turned into a m7 chord.

Bebop: More Chords! (but also less chords)

Ironically, Bebop is probably the period in Jazz where it became normal to turn V chords and (a lot of other chords) into II V progressions when harmonizing standards, but that probably also has to do with how Bebop is very much about moving harmony, and if you have a II V I then there is more movement than just the V I.

At the same, they probably thought about a lot of those “extra chords” as embellishments and extra sounds and not than really a description of the actual harmony of the song. An good example of this could be the first two bars of  “Have You Met Miss Jones”:

Fmaj7 Bb7 Am7 D7 Gm7 – Fmaj7 F#dim Gm7

Where the 1st example has a nice flow and a lot of movement and the 2nd one is what is really happening in the harmony of the song, so to speak.

Here you might often solo on the 2nd progression while the comping plays the first.

But you are free to do what ever you want, and it is also nice to sometimes just nail all those changes, even if the comping doesn’t.

Shoot a version without “even if the comping doesn’t”?

Joe Pass: Just 3 Chords!

Joe Pass reduces the progression to essentially 3 chord types:

“I mean a major minor or dominant you must
look at chord changes
really in the simplest form way you can”

And that works really well for reducing the amount of chords in a progression and often will also make it easier to understand how the harmony is flowing, but not always, and maybe tying your understanding to specific chords is not explaining how to improvise or even comp over the song. Making things very simple also sometimes means leaving out useful information, and while your ears and the melody of the song often will help with that,  it can get a bit confusing. And while you think of the simple chords then you still play all the chords when you are comping, so you do need to know what they are.

But it does really resonate with me that you want to keep the chords simple, also in terms of extensions and interpretations of them, which is also why I very often don’t write extensions on the chords at all even though I might be playing that in chord voicing. There is a lot of freedom in how you interpret a chord, and it doesn’t make sense to force a certain sound on it. Instead you want to understand the chord in the context of the song (and the context or band you are playing in) and use that to decide what colors should be added. Extensions can become a distraction from what is actually happening in the song.

Stella is a good example here, and Joe Pass actually reduces this in that video, where the way he interprets the last way back to Bb is what really resonated with me. Here are the most common set of changes:

“You know like if I play Stella By Starlight in the key of Bb the first chord is A7
the second chord is F7
the third chord is B flat seventh
next chord is Eb next chord is Eb minor, Bb”

I’ll get to how Ab7 is Ebm in a bit, but let’s first look at the different dominants.

F7 is clearly the dominant in the key, which is Bb major, and you just hear that sound with a 9th and 13th in the song, even if the original arrangement has a b13 if I remember correctly.

This makes a ton of sense and reducing Cm7 F7 to F7 also works really well, but if you look at the A7 at the beginning of the song then that is not A7 as you would find it in D major. There are a few things that give that away: The II chord in this case is an Eø, and there is a Bb in the melody over the A7. So that chord is more like an A7 in Dm with a b9 and a b13. You should probably not treat the F7 and the A7 the same if you start soloing, and you in general you will quickly come across different types of dominant chords that you want to be able to handle.

In fact, the A7 or Eø A7 is a reharmonization and the chord is originally a diminished chord, what I usually describe as a #IV diminished,

but as you may or may not know I tend to reduce chord progressions to functions rather than chords because that also tells me how I have to play the chords or solo over the progression, the one thing that is clearly not included when you just throw away the II chord.

Barry Harris Approach

WIth that type of dominant sound, Barry Harris has another explanation with the exercise that tells you to play down the “C7 scale to the 3rd of A”

Essentially that scale is D harmonic minor which is the scale that gives you an A7 with a b9 and a b13.

It is a very neat way to introduce the sound of the progression and also get the right extensions in there without having to start talking about harmonic minor and making things complicated.

I guess the downside to thinking in functions is that you need to add other names or another level to how you think about the chord progression and that may be difficult to learn compared to just throwing away a chord. Joe Pass clearly came at this in a very practical way where I also learned from theory lessons when I was studying.

Reviewing Other Peoples Teaching

Just a side-note on this video, I actually get quite a lot of requests to talk about other peoples teaching,  and usually I say no to making a video explaining a video that Rick Beato,  or somebody else made, simply because it seems a bit weird to explain other peoples teaching. In this case, I decided to still do a video because I think it is really interesting to hear how Joe Pass thinks about chords and you can actually find a lot in this 1 to 2-minute segment of a very long video.

IVm and Backdoor Dominants

The other thing that really resonated with me , and actually is the reason I decided to make this video, is how Joe Pass described this section:

“3rd chord is Bb7 next chord
is Eb next chord is Eb minor Bb”

So he clearly hears the Ab7 as a minor subdominant since that dominant is then turned into a IV minor chord, rather than keeping it as a dominant, which to me also suggests that his ears probably think in functions as well.

A lot of the most beautiful harmony in Jazz standards is about minor subdominant chords in major. That small group of chords can do magical things, and it is very useful to realize that they belong together and that you can often mess around with changing one out for the other.

In this case, the song is in Bb major, so the IV chord is Eb and the IVm chord will be Ebm, as Joe plays in the video.

The different chords you then have available as common minor subdominant options would be:

Ebm6, EbmMaj7, Ebm7, Ab7, Gbmaj7, Bmaj7 and Cø.

The important notes for the sound are probably that the chord contains the Gb which is the minor 3rd of Ebm and that it does not contain an A, because that would make it a dominant chord.

Learning some Cole Porter songs will help you get acquainted with most of them, he also uses them really a lot.

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Joe Pass – How to Keep Solos Interesting

An important part of playing a great solo is also to not play with the same approach all the time. You have to play the song and make strong melodies, but like Joe Pass does here: You need to have different types of melodies or colors in your playing.

If there is one guitar player you want to check out for bop guitar then it is probably Joe Pass. His playing is really setting the standard when it comes to solid bebop lines on guitar.

In this video, I take a few examples of his playing on the C Jazz Blues: Relaxin’ at Camarillo and talk about the different kinds of lines that he uses on the blues.

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Joe Pass – How to Make Bebop Melodic

Joe Pass is in many ways the definition of solid hard bop and a great place to go if You want to learn to play some melodic lines over chord changes. In this Joe Pass Lesson I am going to break down 4 lines from his solo on There is No Greater Love off the Joy Spring album.

They are really great examples of how to improvise over chord changes and sound like jazz. And You can also learn how there is more to it than just hitting the right notes or playing the right arpeggio. The examples in this video are great for learning some melodic hard bop lines and understanding some of the things you can do to make your bebop solos more melodic. And of course they also demonstrate some of his style and techniques.

A great Joe Pass Lesson book

There is a reason that I keep recommending his Joe Pass Guitar Style book to all my students.
If you want to check out the book you can do so here: http://amzn.to/2l2WzuU (This is an affiliate link so you support the channel by using it to purchase the book)

Check out some of my previous lessons on Joe Pass

Another lesson disccusing the great lines of Joe Pass in a rhythm changes solo. This solo is a duo with Danish Bass Player NHØP playing Oleo. Joe Pass Rhythm Changes lines: Here

Joe Pass is also known for his incredible Chord solos and solo guitar work. This lesson discusses how he interprets a theme and adds fills: Joe Pass Chord Solo Technique: Here

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Joe Pass on Rhythm Changes – 3 Solid Bebop Strategies

I guess there are two things you need to study if you want to learn Jazz Guitar: Rhythm Changes & Joe Pass! So it makes sense to check out a Rhythm Changes Joe Pass Solo! To most people, and certainly if you ask Mike Stern and John Scofield, Joe Pass is where they went to learn Jazz Guitar.

His technique and swinging bebop phrasing is a bible of information for learning to play jazz, both in terms of the notes and melodies but also in terms of phrasing and swing feel. In a similar way Rhythm Changes is where you really start learning many of the things you need to know in order to play Jazz: Improvising over chord changes, playing 8th note lines, turnarounds. In this video

I am taking a look at a few phrases from Joe Pass’ solo on Oleo off the Duo album “Chops” where he plays with Danish bass-player: Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

Hope you like it!

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This is How Joe Pass Plays Amazing Solos

Joe Pass is a giant of Jazz Guitar! In this Joe Pass Lesson I will go over how he turns Li’l Darlin into a chord solo masterpiece. Especially with a focus on how makes fills with chords and voicings and how he harmonizes the melody.

The Joe Pass Lesson on Chord Solo analysis

This video analyzes the first part of the Li’l Darlin theme and breaks down the way the melody is harmonized with block chords and how Joe Pass embellishes the other parts of the song with fills and passing chords. It is a great example of a master guitarist at work on a medium swing tune.

For me Joe Pass was the most important influence when it came to chord solos. Both learning from his chord solo book and playing transcriptions of his solos was essential in getting the vocabulary and the skill to make melodies with chord voicings.

If you want to check out the Joe Pass Chord Solo Book I studied you can do so via this (affiliate) link: http://amzn.to/2kk2zei

You can of course also check out my article on the top 5 books I have worked from while studying Jazz: https://jenslarsen.nl/top-5-jazz-books-learned-lot/

Or the list of albums that has this album included: https://jenslarsen.nl/top-5-classic-jazz-guitar-albums/

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